SEOUL, South Korea — The students and the survivor were divided by two generations and 7,000 miles, but they met on Zoom to discuss a common goal: turning a Harvard professor’s widely disputed claims about sexual slavery during World War II into a teachable moment.
A recent academic journal article by the professor — in which he described as “prostitutes” the Korean and other women forced to serve Japan’s troops — prompted an outcry in South Korea and among scholars in the United States.
It also offered a chance, on the Zoom call last week, for the aging survivor of the Japanese Imperial Army’s brothels to tell her story to a group of Harvard students, including her case for why Japan should issue a full apology and face international prosecution.
“The recent remarks by the professor at Harvard are something that you should all ignore,” Lee Yong-soo, a 92-year-old in South Korea and one of just a handful of so-called comfort women still living, told the students.
But the remarks were a “blessing in disguise” because they created a huge controversy, added Ms. Lee, who was kidnapped by Japanese soldiers during World War II and raped repeatedly. “So this is kind of a wake up call.”
The dispute over the academic paper has echoes of the early 1990s, a time when the world was first beginning to hear the voices of survivors of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery in Asia — traumas that the region’s conservative patriarchal cultures had long downplayed.
Now, survivors’ testimony drives much of the academic narrative on the topic. Yet many scholars say that conservative forces are once again trying to marginalize the survivors.
“This is so startling, 30 years later, to be dragged back, because in the meantime survivors from a wide range of countries found a voice,” said Alexis Dudden, a historian of Japan and Korea at the University of Connecticut who has interviewed the women.
The uproar began after an academic journal’s website published an article in December in which J. Mark Ramseyer, a Harvard Law School professor, argued that the women were “prostitutes” who had willingly entered into indenture contracts.
An international chorus of historians called for the article to be retracted, saying that his arguments ignored extensive historical evidence and sounded more like a page from Japan’s far-right playbook. A group of more than 1,900 economists wrote this week that the article used game theory, law and economics as “cover to legitimize horrific atrocities.”